Food, glorious food… Something that’s essential for life and can bring great joy. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the understanding of the symbiotic relationship between nutrition and good health. Therefore, teaching children about nutrition is very crucial.
It’s never too early to begin building good eating habits for children. Getting the correct balance of nutrients is crucial for growth and development. It will also help reduce the chances of poor health as they grow and in later life, such as:
- Eating disorders
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease or stroke
There’s also plenty of evidence showing that poor nutrition has a direct effect on mental health, playing a part in low self-esteem, learning difficulties, and eating disorders.
Of course, teaching children about nutrition should be a positive experience, so how do we go about doing this?
Include a wide variety of key nutrients in their everyday diet
This is the first step you should take in teaching your children about nutrition. It sounds simple in theory, but as many parents will know, to their chagrin, sometimes it can be a challenge to pursue a child to eat up the ‘good stuff’. They’d much prefer the instant hit of a Mac Ds or something sugary if given the change.
So, what’s the answer?
While there’s no magic bullet, the key is to use a combination of food variety, lead by example, and educate your little ones from an early age.
An overview of childhood nutrition
A child’s diet is not so different from an adult’s. Including a combination of all main food, groups are crucial. This means:
- Carbohydrates: Such as whole grain bread, pasta, cereals, and rice
- Protein: Nuts, eggs, poultry, and lean fish
- Healthy fats: Found in yogurt, cheese, milk, etc
You should also include plenty of vegetables, legumes, and fruit, as well as ensure good hydration. Plenty of water is good, as opposed to other, flavored drinks.
Of course, children have additional nutritional requirements to adults because they’re in the growth period of life. Bone formation and health require an abundance of calcium, something easily provided with plenty of milk, cheese, and yogurt – around 3 servings per day is an adequate amount for good bone health.
Dental health is also vital, with food playing as great a role as hygiene routines. The same dairy foods mentioned above also provide essential proteins that help prevent tooth decay and gum problems. Daily physical activity also supports nutritional habits. Being outside, running, jumping, and getting out of breath helps maintain a healthy weight, encourages muscle growth, and play a huge role in stress management and well-being.
Establishing healthy eating habits
The above is something that most adults are aware of. However, the challenge is putting this into practice in daily life. Thankfully, there are plenty of tips that can help overcome even the fussiest of eaters – and, as mentioned above, the earlier you begin the healthy eating journey with your child, the better.
- Introduce different foodstuffs early: From babies onwards, introducing them to a wide variety of different foods will help establish an adventurous approach to eating.
- Lead by example: Be a great role model and make healthy food choices yourself. Get the rest of the family to do the same. This is a win-win situation for all involved.
- Use different presentation methods: For example, your child might not like cooked or steamed veg but might love the crunch of a raw carrot (or vice-versa). Put pieces of fruit in the freezer for them to suck on in hot weather – it’s a far healthier alternative to sweetened icy poles or ice cream.
- Eat as a family: Whether it’s just you and your child or there’s a partner and/or other siblings, try to sit down and eat around the table together, at least once a day. This makes eating an ‘event’ rather than something to be done on the hop.
- Use color: Children love colorful things – and this should include food presentation. Try to make every meal contain a variety of colors, rather than just a plateful of bland shades.
- Eat breakfast: It might sound cliché, but breakfast this the most important meal of the day.
- Limit snacks and junk food: We’re not saying that treats should never be allowed, but they should be kept for special occasions. Natural sugars, such as those found in fruit, are far more beneficial (and less addictive) than the sugar rush from sweets or chocolate.
These actions will create the building blocks of healthy eating without your child even realizing it. As they grow and begin to take more of an interest in what they eat, you can begin to explain in simple terms what different foodstuffs do to the body. Make it a game – you already do activities, such as ‘what noise does a cow make?’ So do the same with food. ‘What does drinking milk do?’ (Answer, builds my bones) for example.
Make use of a good childcare facility
Another crucial aspect of great childhood nutrition is to ensure that any childcare facility you use also champions the same. Ask about their menus and how they’re designed. Do they cater to all nutritional choices for all cultures? What do they know about allergies/intolerances and how are these guaranteed? Are food and nutrition included in the curriculum in an appropriate age-related manner?
With so many of us regularly relying on childcare, it’s vital to know that your chosen provider is carrying on the great work you do at home.
Child nutrition is a complex subject but it needn’t be difficult to implement. A combination of planning, leading by example, and a relaxed attitude towards food fads that every child experiences are key. Couple this with a good sense of humor on the odd occasion that your child flatly refuses to eat anything you put in front of them and remember that all-important rule of parenthood:
There are no hard and fast rules. If all else fails, you simply try again tomorrow…